The Suffolk County Legislature is getting in on the nationwide campaign to get consumers to take along reusable bags when they go shopping (which is even touted on posters in post offices). A hearing is to be held today on a proposal to impose a five-cent surcharge on every plastic or paper bag distributed by a retailer in the county.
That plastic bags are an environmental menace is understood; reportedly, only 1 percent of the many billions used in this country every year are recycled. That paper bags have a large carbon footprint because they take a lot of energy to manufacture is a problem, too. Municipalities around the country are trying to do something about all this, including East Hampton and Southampton Villages, which have approved bans on the use of most plastic bags.
Suffolk’s Legislature has a long history of being first on environmental laws. It started the eventually widespread ban on phosphates in detergents years ago. It was the first county in the nation to ban electronic cigarette sales to minors. More recently, it was the first governmental entity to ban the toxic chemical biphenyl A in baby bottles.
The legislation under consideration today comes from Vivian Viloria-Fisher, the legislator from the Fifth District. The Citizens Campaign for the Environment, an advocacy organization founded in 1985, is urging passage. A similar law — adopted in Washington, D.C., two years ago — has resulted, according to the group, in the use of 75 percent fewer plastic and paper bags.
Still, it’s my guess that there is little chance the proposal will be approved, at least in its present form.
Here’s why: Under the proposed law, if I’m reading the slightly complicated wording correctly, retailers would automatically get to keep one penny of every five-cent surcharge; if the store chooses to offer a carry-out bag credit program to its customers — that is, rewarding them for bringing their own bags — it will get to keep an extra penny. The rest of the money collected would go to the county treasurer to be put in a dedicated stormwater remediation fund.
So far, so good. But to make this work, retailers would be required to submit detailed reports on how much money came in and how much was kept. Fines of up to $500 could be levied for violations.
It’s hard to imagine that this hassle will go over terribly well with the chamber of commerce. A federal ban with an amortization period for manufacturers to get out of the bad bag business altogether might work better, but that seems out of the question.
Perhaps I’ve had my head in the sand, but the recent attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency by some of the would-be Republican candidates for president, which I probably should have expected, came as a shock: Has the recession really brought us to such a dire extremity that our politicians are campaigning on the premise that business interests are to be protected at any environmental cost? I’ve had an even gloomier reaction to President Obama’s and the State Department’s willingness to allow a 1,700-mile crude oil pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to the Texas coast.
If ever there was a time for environmental activism, it is now.